Pianos whose keys move with no human hands above them usually lurk in haunted mansions, but this blood-spattered iteration that eerily plays its own renditions of Soundgarden, Radiohead and Rolling Stones tunes in a pseudo-19th-Century saloon will always echo in your head.
When I first walked into the Marriott at San Diego Comic Con, I didn’t even need to notice the Stormtrooper at the doors to realize the hotel was an extension of the convention beyond the ballrooms that were being used for panels. The unmistakable minor notes of Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun drifted through the crowds and hit a chord. Hard. It had to be, I was pretty sure of which direction the disembodied music was coming from as I maneuvered my way through staff, cosplayers and some really confused hotel guests to the source. There in the lobby was a Westworld setup that gleamed in unnatural white—and on the far end, there it was.
Fans stood transfixed in front of the piano as ghostly melodies drifted in and out of Black Hole Sun to Radiohead’s Paranoid Android and The Rolling Stones’ Paint It Black in between a few bars of the HBO series’ theme song. An antique upright piano that is technologically advanced enough to play itself is an anachronism that is also strangely familiar. When the piano’s regular repertoire of the Westworld theme gives way to a recognizable song, it sparks that nervous type of anticipation that takes hold of you when someone at headquarters is about to change the storyline or the Man in the Black is about to pull the trigger. There is something about that which just hits you like the bullet of his pistol right in the solar plexus.
What lingers in the back of your mind about the Westworld piano isn’t just the clashing types of nostalgia. An instrument that plays on its own is also a reminder to both visitors to the theme park and those (like myself) binge-watching it on HBO Now that its visions of the Old West are an elaborate illusion. There are no ghosts playing the piano at Maeve Millay’s establishment. It is a robotic machine programmed to hit certain keys at certain points and connect these notes in a melody that may or may not remind you of your awkward preteen years in the ‘90s. It is designed to unsettle by varying the emotions it brings on just when you thought you’ve settled into one like your regular seat at the bar and shot of neat whiskey.
Westworld isn’t the first period sci-fi altverse that modern music has somehow infiltrated. If you’re a Dark Tower fan who has made it through that epic adventure of seven books (and possibly counting), remember the song that was playing in the saloon after Roland lost a different Man in Black to the vastness of the desert again? It was Hey Jude.